Orlando Magic highlight defense in up-and-down season for Chuma Okeke

Chuma Okeke has established himself as a solid defender for the Orlando Magic this season. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
Chuma Okeke has established himself as a solid defender for the Orlando Magic this season. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic’s 127-101 loss to the Charlotte Hornets was not full of many moments that stood out.

Markelle Fultz continues to shine in his limited (but expanding) minutes. Jalen Suggs was flying around, seemingly risking injury a ton as he usually does. The Magic’s starters did their work and then let the bench build a deficit no one was coming back from.

That is how the end of the season goes for a team in the Magic’s position. There is not a lot to take from the game. And not a lot that stands out.

Especially defensively. The Magic have let their defense slip as the season has concluded. Everyone can see the finish line. And the team has some wild swings from decent to horrible.

That is what happens when a team is drifting to the end of the season.

Chuma Okeke is not drifting though. He has such an even-keeled nature that it is sometimes easy not to notice him on the floor. Okeke can get hot and drain shots at a big rate as the team has focused him more on sooting from the outside this year (sometimes to his statistical detriment).

But Okeke has stayed even in one area: His defense.

Chuma Okeke has had an up-and-down season where his offense has come and gone. But his defense has been consistent and an area the Orlando Magic continue to build on.

Even as Okeke has gone through noted ups and downs with his shot, his defense has remained a constant. And that is perhaps the biggest thing anyone has taken away from Okeke’s season.

"“Honestly I just try to go out there and play and do what I feel like I’m capable of doing,” Okeke said after Thursday’s loss to Charlotte. “I feel like I’m a good defender so I try to defend at a high level on the defensive end. I also feel like I’m a good offensive player so I try to make the right plays on offense whether it is shooting when somebody gets me in the right spot or kicking to the open teammate.”"

Okeke turned in a stat-stuffing performance that showed all of his defensive potential Thursday in the Magic’s penultimate game.

He totaled 20 points on 8-for-15 shooting with four 3-pointers in 34 minutes in Thursday’s game. He also added seven rebounds, three steals and two blocks. He also had a team-high three deflections for the Magic in the game according to NBA.com.

In a game the Magic lost by 27 points, Okeke was a +6. Okeke did plenty of good things to help lead the Magic in Thursday’s game. A bright spot in a meaningless game.

His stats this year have been wildly up and down. He is averaging 8.4 points per game and 4.9 rebounds per game (slightly better than his averages last year). But he is also shooting significantly worse at 36.9-percent from the floor and 31.3-percent from beyond the arc. He has largely become a 3-point specialist too in Jamahl Mosley’s offense — 63.6-percent of his shots are 3-pointers.

That has helped account for his wild swings.

Defensively, Okeke has been solid but still a work in progress. Against the Hornets, opponents shot 52.9-percent when he was the closest defender according to NBA.com’s box score.

Related Story. Orlando Magic showcase potential starting backcourt. light

For the season, opponents are shooting 48.0-percent from the floor with Okeke as the closest defender, 1.3 percentage points worse than the expected field goal percentage.

That metric is imperfect but shows some areas where Okeke can continue to improve. It also shows the wide variety of players Okeke has defended.

According to Basketball-Index, Okeke has spent a fairly significant time defending every position, although he still defends forwards the most. He defends guards though 29.7-percent of the time, just worse than the league average.

The Magic did not match up Okeke much with players in the first usage tier, but he spent plenty of time guarding players in the tier just below that this season.

That versatility has made him a tool for the Magic this year.

"“A lot of the dirty work,” Mosley said of Okeke’s improvement this season after Thursday’s game. “He can start some games and not start some games. He takes on that role and responsibility. he just embraces it. Some nights if his shot is going in, good. if not, he is still going to play the same way. We continue to ask him to do to guard multiple positions. He does it selflessly to do whatever is necessary to help the team.”"

Where Okeke has been extremely effective is off the ball creating steals and deflections.

According to Basketball-Index, he averages 3.0 deflections per 75 possessions and 2.0 steals per 75 possessions, placing him in the 82nd and 98th percentile respectively. He rates as one of the best players at creating turnovers and being a deterrent in this respect.

That might explain some of Orlando’s usage. They like to use Okeke more as a roamer defensively rather than someone who defends the best player on the other team. This is a skill that will help Okeke hang around and something he can continue growing on.

This is the center of what the Magic hope to see from Okeke and where he makes his biggest contribution on the floor. Orlando has a 108.8 defensive rating with Okeke on the floor, the fourth-best among rotation players.

The offense will be the biggest area for improvement, especially since the Magic have exclusively used Okeke as a 3-point shooter this year despite his strong post play from his rookie season.

Okeke said he will talk with the coaches and the team’s analytics team after the season to get a sense of where they would like him to improve. But some of his wild ups and downs undoubtedly played a role in his effectiveness this year.

One of the areas Okeke said he improved throughout the year was not letting those swings get him down and staying focused on the present.

"“Probably just going out there and playing and having fun and not thinking about stuff too much. At first, when I came back, I was thinking about a lot of injuries and then shots not falling and consistency. At the end of the day, it’s just basketball. I’ve been playing it for a long time. I know what to do when I get out on the court. Just going out there and having fun and playing hard for my teammates.”"

Okeke still holds a lot of promise and potential. And the Magic are still coaxing comfort and a lot out of him as the team prepares now for his third season and all the pressure that comes with it as the team begins thinking about his future beyond his rookie contract.

A healthy offseason and training camp are probably the most important for him as Okeke has struggled to overcome injuries early in his career.

Orlando Magic have ground to make up to win back fans. dark. Next

His defensive potential is the easiest to see. It is where he is making the most impact early in his career.